Continuing the series of discussions with leading lights in the content industry, I sat down with Eric Reiss to talk about the point of content, service design, and where author experience fits in to the mix…
Content Strategist, CEO, The FatDUX group
Rick: Welcome, Eric. How are you doing?
Eric: I’ve got a sore back. (Aren’t you glad you asked?) I’ve been doing a lot of garden work. We’ve got some big trees in the yard and the leaves are starting to fall. And Friday is the last day this year that Copenhagen County will pick up garden trash for the season.
Rick: Isn’t it a bit early top stop that? With all those leaves falling…
Eric: I thought so. Copenhagen County’s decisions aren’t always easy to figure out.
For example, they used to send out a calendar: one of those you could hang in your kitchen. A single A4 sheet, with six months on one side and six months on the other. It told you exactly when they were collecting newspapers, big trash – like old washing machines and whatever – hazardous materials, garden trash, etc.
But they’ve stopped that. Now, you have to go to Copenhagen County’s web site and search through various sections, for the different trash types. The onus is on the user – the citizen – to find the information for themselves. If we miss a collection, I have to drive to the dump myself. They wanted to get in on “that whole ‘web’ thing”, but in doing so they made the system unusable.
The whole thing is crazy! So often, things that are supposed to make my life easier… don’t.
Rick: That reminds me of something Noz Urbina is saying a lot these days: “We have a bad habit of framing our user scenarios in the window of the medium we are building.” We’re building a web site, so obviously, everyone wants to come to our site to get this particular nugget of information. When in reality, they want an at-a-glance answer.
Which, unintentional as it was, is a perfect introduction to our subject: service design.
For those who aren’t familiar with the subject, would you care to give an overview?
Eric: Service design… is the intersection between interaction design and system thinking. It’s designing experiences in a larger context – using the very same UX tools we use in the rather narrower “online development” environment – personae, touch point analyses, customer journeys, et cetera.
For example, it’s normal to say that when dealing with a customer, you should smile. But what’s the value of that smile if the shop floor is disgustingly dirty? Or how much more powerful is that smile if accompanied by touch, however fleeting? (Which is why, when handing change back to a customer, you should put it in their hand – create that physical contact – rather than dropping it in.)
Service design is about all the pieces of the puzzle, taken together.
Rick: So, it’s really designing for your definition of user experience, which I referenced in the book (p19).
Eric: Yes. All things, one way or another, either emotionally or practically, add to the customer’s experience. You can’t design an interaction experience in isolation. That’s why so many so-called “UX design companies” are going bust these days – most of them are just mediocre web-design shops that have jumped on the UX bandwagon.
To do service design, you start with a touch point analysis figuring out each individual part of the customer’s interaction with you, whether that is researching a product, interacting with your company, buying, using your product or getting support.
Rick: Including, I suppose, the more tenuous connections. The classic example being the person buying the drill: they don’t want a drill, per se, they want a hole. But they don’t want a hole, per se, they want to put a hook on the wall to hang a picture. So when they admire, or show off, that picture in future, it reflects on you, as the supplier of the drill.
Eric: Yes, everything that could affect the customer’s experience.
Next, we consider our contribution to each touch point to give the customer the best experience. We’re not looking at one channel. We’re not looking at one time. We’re looking at the customer’s journey through the entire process, wherever and whenever it is.
Rick: Where do you see service design touching on author experience?
Eric: Author Experience explains the intricacies of content curation – the machines, software and processes involved – and make these separate issues from actually writing content. In the same way that smiling at the customer doesn’t help if the floors are dirty or the things that somebody wants are sold out; each aspect needs to be addressed, to make the whole system work.
I mean, you have to understand the entire business. It’s all related, ultimately, to user experience. User experience is not something that happens on a screen. It’s something that happens all the time, all around us.
Rick: What’s an example of a brand that has created this great experience – this association that goes beyond the product itself?
Eric: Let’s look at a classic: Coca-Cola, arguably the best-known brand in the world.
We’ve got over a century of brand history – and experience – there. Coca-Cola have used many tag lines through the years. My favourite is “The pause that refreshes.”
Rick: Showing your age? That’s from the Great Depression!
Eric: And it’s still a great line. It still sums up the positives of my experience with Coca-Cola. I like the taste. I find it refreshing. I like to be able to sit down with a bottle of Coke and just… you know, take a break.
I liked those classic 6½oz (192ml) glass bottles. They were the right size for a refreshing pause. And the glass kept the drink cold. (And the design of the bottles, themselves… perfect.)
But now – partly because of recycling regulations, and the push to standardise bottles for vending machines – it’s half litre and litre-and-a-half plastic bottles. I can’t drink that much before it goes flat. I often pour it in a glass. And quite apart from the aesthetics, plastic just doesn’t keep the Coke cold.
I’m sure they’re selling more. And it’s got to be cheaper using recycled – and recyclable – plastic than hefty glass. And who knows, maybe the target market can quaff a litre and a half before it warms up or goes flat.
But from my perspective, the brand is deteriorating.
Rick: Yes. I remember a time – late 80’s and early 90’s – when Coca-Cola were doing a great job of associating their brand, and the whole experience, with other activities. Instead of direct advertising, they were sponsoring sports. But the idea of leaching off the positive buzz of major sporting events to enhance your customers’ perception of your brand: those are service design principles.
Eric: Interestingly, that was largely a result of the New Coke debacle. Coca-Cola didn’t know what message they should be pushing in order to recover from a really poor business decision. They couldn’t use a cheesy slogan on the back of New Coke. They couldn’t advertise directly.
Coca-Cola has always been part of a lifestyle. It’s not about competing with Pepsi on levels of sweetness. It’s… Coke! And tying the brand back into the lifestyle of sports was the right thing to do. It took the focus off the error, and returned to fundamentals.
But now, we have the Share a Coke campaign, with your name on a bottle. Yes, it increases sales, but…
Rick: It’s gimmicky.
Eric: Yes. I’m not going to waste time looking for my name in a shop. I just want to grab a bottle and go. I don’t understand the psychology. Are they trying to personalise the brand, so that I feel a greater affinity for Coca-Cola? Drinking from a bottle labelled “Veronica” doesn’t do it for me.
Rick: It’s gamification.
Eric: Yeah. But gamification is vastly overrated.
Sometimes, I just want to do something without making a game of it.
When it comes to Coke, I want a quick break, a pause. I want those lovely glass bottles (I’m sufficiently crazy that I actually pour Coke into old bottles sometimes).
Rick: Sometimes, it feels like Coca-Cola might understand their content, but they don’t understand the connection between their content and the experience. So we get these gimmick campaigns. And yes, they drive up sales for a while. But then they need another campaign, and another. They aren’t reinforcing the bigger picture of the experience.
Eric: Exactly. The Coca-Cola Company has John Pemberton’s secret recipe locked in a vault, in Atlanta. So they understand the value of their content, but back in the 80’s, they certainly didn’t understand its social implication.
Now, to bring this back to what we work with… For the rest of us, when we’re talking about written content, do we understand what makes it good?
In the United States, we have Cliff Notes. If you don’t want to bother reading all 500+ pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – “Call me Ishmael” – you read the Cliff Notes. You can go through it in about an hour, and it gives you the essence of Moby Dick; enough that you could probably get a B- on an English exam.
But, what made Melville an interesting author? At times, he’s incredibly verbose. But he had an ability to paint a picture that is quite unique. You might be able to get the general storyline of Moby Dick from Cliff Notes, but you don’t get Herman Melville’s style.
With the content we create, whether we are talking about the books we write, or the content we are putting on web sites, we’re trying to convey ideas. We’re not writing for the sake of art.
Rick: Speak for yourself. I started out writing novels (albeit unpublished). I can’t entirely separate myself from the beauty of language.
Eric: Obviously, we want to write well. We want it to be pleasant to read, but we’re not writing literature. We’re writing non-fiction; we’re trying to teach people, create shared references and greater understanding.
We need to recognize what our content is for. It is, fundamentally, one of the dominant conveyances of service design. It’s our voice. It’s our shop floor.
Rick: So how do we make sure it is swept clean?
Eric: We have to design our content. To learn how do that, we can look back two millennia.
Marco Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman, wrote ten books on architecture. He codified principles, which apply to information design, as much as to buildings. Vitruvius said that good architecture consists of three key elements: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas.
- Firmitas: it needs to be firm. You don’t want the roof caving in. You make sure the walls can support a roof. And the roof beams need to be able to take the weight of the tiles.
- Utilitas: it needs to be utilitarian. A house has functional purpose. You need to include places for people to sleep, and to prepare food.
- Venustas: it roughly translates as beauty. But it’s more than that; it’s the feeling of love for what you see. It’s not just ornamentation; it’s transferring a positive feeling to those who see or use it.
Rick: Emotional aesthetics.
We’re at a point now, with digital communications, where we’ve got firmitas covered: things are stable, mostly. We expect servers to be responsive. We expect things not to break because we clicked the back button.
Likewise utilitas: findability, usability, sixteen other -abilities. We’ve got that pegged.
But modern apps, web sites, etc. tend to forget venustas; the beauty aspect. And I think that’s the next part. Service design is part of that. And obviously author experience, because part of the author experience is to understand the constraints… not the CMS, nor the back end, but in how we are writing, how we are conveying our message.
Let’s stop making excuses for mediocre writing…
Rick: I like that.
Eric: … and start figuring out how can we convey our message in a way that both communicates and, more importantly, is memorable, because of the artistry put into the sentence. And by artistry, I don’t mean using big words like meretricious and ubiquitous. I mean imbuing it with venustas.
I swear, anyone who’s going to write for interactive media should start reading Hemingway. Because Hemingway has a thing; simple sentences that have a tendency to run together. A lot of periods, with the next sentence tied in with “and.” It’s really one long thought, but you can parse it. I’m not saying everybody needs to emulate Ernest Hemingway, but he sure could tell a story. He conveys emotion without resorting to the flowery writing of his 19th-century predecessors.
Hemingway had a particular style of writing – the run on sentences, with very simple syntax. The use of “and” as the first word in a new sentence to improve the conversational tone and cadence.
Rick: Iceberg Theory?
Eric: To some extent. But the “iceberg theory” relates more to the theory of omission – to let the reader’s imagination take flight by omitting details that might conflict with the reader’s internal mind’s eye. I was thinking more about his use of the basics he learned as a young reporter at the Kansas City Star: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English, not forgetting to strive for smoothness. Be positive, not negative.”
Given this background, it’s not surprising that Hemingway uses words that are casual, conversational, colloquial – and with very few adjectives. He cuts out everything that’s superfluous and we, as writers in the digital age, should consider this, too – but without turning our prose into the lacklustre pablum of Cliff Notes. Our writing also needs style and grace to hold the reader’s interest.
As writers for digital media, we need to present the bare facts material many people are looking for online without a lot of extraneous crap. That said, once we’ve concisely stated our point of view, there is ample time to make our case.
Take, for example, Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. I can sum that book up in one sentence: We live in two worlds: the industrial world where we talked about moving atoms, and the new information world where we talk about moving electrons. And that’s it. But its success rests on all the other stuff he put in there – the stories and anecdotes that get you to think about the bigger picture, that reframe the key message, that make it real, and memorable.
Rick: One big idea, repeatedly reinforced.
As you say, we don’t expect everyone to perfect those skills. Some people are engineers – they communicate best with numbers. They need someone else to venustify their contribution to the content. But it is so important to the flow of information, to the consistency – as I cover in the section on workflow (p36) – that changes to the source integrate cleanly, whether automatically or through notification.
We need tools that help merge the raw facts with the readable, memorable, service-based approach to content delivery that enhances experience, and so brand.
Eric: Exactly. We need to manage content, as a vehicle providing service. It all ties together, with value for the customer at the centre.
We need to approach content from a service-design perspective. What are we trying to accomplish? What’s the bigger picture? How does it all interrelate?
Do we understand what we’re doing? Or are we going to buy into the premise that we must update the ten-year-old web content, just because it’s ten years old? If it’s still relevant, still useful… we don’t need something new.
That’s where I see author experience: you explained a lot of the machinations that go on behind the scene, in terms of content curation, that most authors don’t think about. We need tools – and processes – that help us govern our content based on its value, not fads.
That is what makes your book incredibly important.
Rick: Thank you.
Eric: I particularly like the approach you’ve taken introducing the subject. On one hand, you opened up to get people thinking about the why of their content, while on the other showing them enough how that they’ll get practical takeaways from the book.
It’s really important that we think about these subjects that many overlook, and that we do more than give practical step-by-step advice: we need to be questioning the how and the why of what is considered standard practice. Some people like instructions that tell them to put tab A in slot B, because they can go back to work and start putting tab A in slot B. It’s an easy takeaway. But it’s far more important to say: we’re wasting a lot of time putting tab A in slot B; is this really what we should be doing?
You’ve manage to ask that question, to prompt the thinking, while also providing practical steps to move forward.